Book Consciousness

Friday, August 25th, 2006

Nick Szabo describes book consciousness:

Marshall McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein and others have described the importance of the “printing revolution” to European developments such the Reformation, Renaissance, and science. According to Eisenstein, printing finally foiled the entropy that had destroyed the vast majority of written works since ancient times. Printing also enlarged the bookshelves of scholars all over Europe: by a factor of fifty or more by the middle of the 16th century.

I’d go even farther than Eisenstein. Printing soon brought literacy to vast numbers of people (eventually to the vast majority of us). Printing, especially printing in newly standardized vernaculars, changed the very consciousness of people, and turned a small corner of the world, Western Europe, into a culture that in many ways conquered the world. Widespread decentralized printing and the accompanying book markets, new schools, and rise of literacy gave rise to a new form of consciousness — book consciousness.

Colombus was among the first generation of navigators who had been reading avidly and widely since a child. On his bookshelf was Marco Polo’s Travels. On his voyages he carried maps made by geographers who had been literate sincethey were children, and he carried astronomical tables that had been printed widely across Europe. These tables had been made by a Hungarian-Italian mathematician whose bookshelf was full of ancient Greek science and mathematics. Such information had been rather inferior and far less available just a few decades before.

With the easy conquest by tiny Portugal of Asia’s vast and ancient sea trade routes, rapidly literizing Western Europeans were by the early 16th century demonstrating a vast superiority in naval affairs. In navigation as in battle officers using accurate charts and astronomical tables were at a premium. (Europeans did not have quite such good luck on land against the Turks). Western Europeans would retain completely uncontested (except among each other) naval superiority on the world’s oceans until the Japanese victory over Russia in the early 20th century. The Japanse by then had long since taken up printing and had a very well read population . Even on the ground by the 18th century English merchants, officers, and civil servants, practically all of them literate and widely read since young children, were finding it quite easy to conquer and take over the administration in far larger and otherwise highly advanced civilizations like India.

Szabo notes that widespread literacy allowed western organizations to grow beyond the Dunbar number, which was popularized by Gladwell in The Tipping Point as the “rule of 150″:

Soon after the spread of the printing press, the very fundamentals of organization in Western Europe began to change. In the late Middle Ages organizations, even royal and papal bureaucracies and banking “super-companies”, rarely engaged more than a few dozen employees. Organizational size came up against the severe limit of the Dunbar number. By the end ofthe 16th century, the colonial companies and bureaucracies of Spain and Portugal were vast, highly literate, and well coordinated. Officer corps had often been raised on military books and thus able to draw lessons from a wide variety of ancient and recent battles. Even a minor salt extractor in Wear, England, was employing 300 men by the mid 16th century. (Large organizations in manufacturing would largely have to wait until the 18th century and the industrial revolution, however).

Read the whole article.

Incidentally, the Dunbar number has also been popularized as the “monkeysphere”:

In its popularization, the research of Dunbar and others is taken as an upper bound of the number of fellow humans that an individual can view as being “truly human”. In this form, the “monkeysphere” functions as a reductionistic and biologistic explanation for why humans can treat some humans with consideration and other humans indifferently or even inhumanely.

Some example explanations using the notion of a monkeysphere are:

  • “Whenever you make new close personal friends, you have to drop some old personal friends to make room for them in your monkeysphere.”
  • “The reason that the people in village X don’t mind doing Y to the people in village Z is because the people in village Z are not in the monkeysphere of people in village X.”
  • “Because the number of people in that department exceeded 150, which is the size of the human monkeysphere, they had to split the department into two.”

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